Alternative Dispute Resolution: Values-Based Role Play Simulations for Improving Mediation Skills

How role play simulations can improve a mediator's effectiveness at the bargaining table

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alternative dispute resolution

Three role-play simulations focus on the mediation of values-based disputes and alternative dispute resolution. They are now available with Teaching Notes and an Annotated Bibliography from the Program on Negotiation Teaching Negotiation Resource Center.

Each game provides an opportunity for students to explore how mediation might be used to address values-based and identity-based disputes–not just interest-based disputes. The parties and their attorneys are asked to craft settlements that do not require them to compromise their fundamental beliefs or values. (Students do not have to be studying law to participate effectively in these simulations.)


Download this FREE special report, Mediation Secrets for Better Business Negotiations: Top Techniques from Mediation Training Experts, to discover mediation techniques for selecting the right mediator, understand the mediation process and learn how to engage the mediator to ensure a good outcome from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


The first alternative dispute resolution simulation is entitled Williams v. Northville.

It is a five-person, non-scorable negotiation simulation based on a real case. It focuses on a dispute between a public school and a family over classroom discussions and educational materials that are part of a school diversity program depicting same-sex couples and their children. In this simulation, Jim and Jan Williams are the parents of two elementary school children in the Northville Public School System. They have asked the school principal for advance notification anytime homosexuality, same-sex marriage, or families headed by same-sex couples might be discussed in class, and for their children to be excused from such discussions. The principal has denied this request, explaining that no parental notification is required or appropriate when homosexuality is to be discussed as part of the regular school curriculum. The Williamses filed a lawsuit against the school district in state court asserting their right to have their children excused from any part of the curriculum that is contrary to their religious beliefs. The judge resolved the legal question in favor of the school district, holding that parents do not have the right to dictate what a public school may teach their children. The simulation begins when the Williamses file an appeal of the lower court’s decision. Prior to oral argument, the appellate court administrator has urged the parties (and their lawyers) to try to mediate the dispute.

The second alternative dispute resolution simulation is called Ellis v. MacroB.

It is another five-person, non-scorable simulation based on a real dispute between an employee and his/her employer, a large, privately held software company. Until recently, Ellis was senior project manager at MacroB, headquartered in California. The simulation begins when a company-wide diversity campaign is launched featuring a series of diversity posters, including one that reads: “I am a gay man and I am MacroB.” The posters were placed in employee work areas, including on the exterior wall of Ellis’s cubicle. Ellis is devoutly religious and part of a faith tradition that holds that homosexuality is sinful and wrong. Deeply disturbed by the poster, Ellis taped several Bible verses to the inside wall of his/her cubicle including quotations condemning homosexuality and predicting dire consequences for those who engages in homosexual acts. When asked to remove the verses, Ellis refused. After several meetings with the company’s diversity manager Ellis offered to remove the passages if MacroB removed its posters depicting homosexual employees. When no agreement was reached, Ellis was given a week off with pay to reconsider. MacroB removed the Bible verses that Ellis had posted. Upon returning to work, Ellis reposted all of the Bible passages, refused to remove them, and was fired for insubordination. Ellis and MacroB reluctantly agreed to speak with a mediator. After hearing from both sides, the mediator suggested that resolution might be possible. The simulation begins as both sides and their lawyers are about to meet the mediator.

The third alternative dispute resolution simulation is called Springfield OutFest.

Based on a real case, it focuses on a dispute between two private organizations and a city over the terms under which a permit for a festival on city property will or won’t be granted. The first organization, Springfield Pride, is a local advocacy group for Springfield’s sizeable lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community. Springfield Pride organizes an annual street festival called the OutFest to celebrate National Coming Out Day. Salvation Now!, a nationwide network of grassroots religious and social campaigners seeks to bring its religious message directly to those it considers to be living sinful lifestyles. In years past, tensions have flared between the two groups. In 2010, they clashed during the OutFest and the police had to restore order. The confrontation dampened the festival atmosphere and attracted unfavorable media attention to the city and the OutFest. The simulation begins one year later. Springfield Pride is again requesting a permit to hold its upcoming OutFest in the city park. Fearing a confrontation and worried about its liability, the city has asked the parties (and their lawyers) to meet and discuss proposed guidelines and restrictions.

All three cases present authentic and hard-to-mediate values-based and identity-based disputes. The Teaching Notes, written by students in Professor Lawrence Susskind’s course at Harvard Law School, reviews five different strategies that mediators might want to try in these situations. Key teaching points include the limits on interest trading when values and identity are at stake, the possibility that resolution may not be the most appropriate goal in such situations, and the need for mediators in values-based disputes to learn how to help parties confront their value differences effectively.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of “Teaching Negotiation”, a bi-annual e-newsletter from NP@PON, available here.


Download this FREE special report, Mediation Secrets for Better Business Negotiations: Top Techniques from Mediation Training Experts, to discover mediation techniques for selecting the right mediator, understand the mediation process and learn how to engage the mediator to ensure a good outcome from the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School.


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